Far north in Kenya’s arid semi-desert, in a place dotted with little rises of rock and speckled with stray camels, is a river and a town called Lokichar.
Arriving in our smallest Cessna some weeks ago, I made a swift pass close to the ground, eying the ruts on the runway and inadvertently emptying out a nearby schoolhouse of several hundred children who ran to see the plane up close, and circled around to land. Successfully dodging both rivulets and children, the landing was smoother than expected, and my three passengers and I made a hasty retreat to a waiting truck that would take us across the river and toward the reason we were there.
We soon happened upon a new church under construction and then a complex of neat and whitewashed buildings, all fairly new, arranged purposefully, well kept, and somewhat out-of-place for Africa. As we arrived at the compound gate, a boy appeared. He struggled to reach the latch while we waited awkwardly in the back of the truck. The boy continued to struggle, his motions unnatural. I realized after a moment that he was crippled. A view of the compound revealed many more children – hobbling, wheeling, and shuffling to the car park to greet the visitors. Every disability seemed different, and unique. The smiles were all the same however – bright, and beautiful.
Some of the children peered in the open door to the small office where we gathered. Sister Catherine, a gracious Kenyan nun, stood behind her spotless desk, proudly passing out a guest-book to sign. “The John Paul Home for crippled children,” she explained, “is named after the late Pope.” His picture sat squarely on the wall behind her, looking down with kind approval. “We have forty-four children here currently.”
All forty-four gathered in the main rehabilitation room. They sat on floor mats, a mass of giggles and crutches. Each wore a blue tee-shirt with the John Paul motto wrinkled across the back, borne of the Apostle John: “that they may have life abundant.”
The doctors I had flown out set up to examine the children, one by one. Each waited for his or her name to be called, and upon hearing it, clambered to his feet (or foot) and took a seat opposite one of the physicians. Our one-day trip to Lokichar was a short visit, simply for follow-up examinations, and to prescribe the next treatment or surgery for each child. I basically helped with filling out paperwork, misspelling every manner of medical term.
The injuries and deformities were startling to me. Almost as much as the gracious little souls who bore them. These kids formed a marvelous little community of shared pain and struggle. And a shared, if uncommon, pleasure in ordinary things – the things “whole” people take in stride and seldom savor. Swinging on the playground. Greeting a visitor. Singing a song. Meeting a pilot.
I had pulled the gold stripes off my shoulders before we arrived at the compound – they often attract too much attention when I don’t particularly want to. Pilots are celebrities out here, and I was trying to keep a low profile. But the kids at the John Paul Home were on to me, and they cornered me after lunch to get my story.
So I reached down into the cargo pockets of my khakis and produced a set of tattered Captain’s bars. I buttoned them in place on my shoulders and watched the eyes of the children light up, and their imaginations soar. Two boys, both amputees, leaned in closer on their crutches, gazing at me as if I wasn’t the same person who was just standing there a moment ago.
Transformed, I began to tell about my work as a pilot and what it is like to fly around – how exciting it is to climb above the clouds, and to come down and land again. I motioned with my hands, gripping an imaginary control yoke in mid air. I maneuvered the plane through the phases of flight, made a picture perfect landing, and had a captive audience before it was all through.
Some of the boys asked questions about what I studied in order to qualify as a pilot, and how long it would take to learn – questions about the process of becoming. It took me awhile to realize, while answering each question academically, that these boys were imagining themselves there. They were imaging themselves here – in my shoes. In my gold bars.
Initially, I couldn’t see beyond their broken bodies. With righted eyes, however, I saw these children more whole than most who could look in a mirror and count four perfect limbs. Courage in their souls, love in their spirits, Jesus in their hearts, and the ability to dream impossible things – these count more.
I could understand why the doctors had come. It is truly an awesome calling to be a healer of crippled children. And sister Catherine, laboring patiently without compensation or complaint, she is a saint by any denomination. The marvelous hearts of these children must be largely her doing. Unlike the others, I didn’t have much to give the children, except for a few short stories of flying adventure.
My feelings of inadequacy must be the reason that, shortly after taking off that afternoon, I leveled the airplane low to the ground and, with a devious smile, turned directly toward the John Paul Home for Crippled Children. With the throttle pushed wide open, my little Cessna rocketed past the compound and caught the children by surprise. For one second suspended overhead, as the late Pope’s picture rattled on the wall, I rolled the gleaming white wings left and right in a raucous wave – my salute to the soaring spirits of a bunch of really great kids.
What I saw, in that fleeting moment, was a courtyard of hands raised skyward, waving joyously into the rumble of a furious fly-by. And even from fifty feet at 150 miles-an-hour, I could see their smiles. Bright, and beautiful.